Oakland police and city officials have been vowing for almost a decade to implement federally mandated reforms designed to fix the city’s troubled police department. Yet despite these promises, lasting change has yet to come. According to policing experts, community activists, and even the federal monitors who have audited the Oakland Police Department, there are underlying institutional and cultural problems within the department that are major roadblocks to bringing Oakland’s police up to the standards of 21st-century law enforcement. And unless the department addresses these deeper issues, its efforts to reform are doomed to fail.
Community leaders who have followed OPD’s lack of progress contend that there is one key problem: Most of the department’s sworn officers have no connection with Oakland’s residents other than through surveillance and force. Many OPD officers commute to the city from distant suburbs. Many police cadets are recruited from outside Oakland and come to the job with biases about the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. All-too-frequent allegations of racial profiling, incidents of excessive force, and episodes of outright brutality are the unfortunate result of a dysfunctional departmental culture.
Revelations last week that photographs of US District Judge Thelton Henderson, who is black and who oversees OPD’s federal consent decree, and Mayor Jean Quan, who is Chinese American, were defaced in a racially offensive manner and left posted outside the lineup room in the Police Administration Building for two days drew sharp criticism from the monitors who oversee the consent decree. In the most recent quarterly report, monitor Robert Warshaw wrote that such actions “strike at the heart of the NSA [Negotiated Settlement Agreement].”
It also wasn’t an isolated incident: a photograph taken in December 2010 at the former shooting range in the basement of OPD’s headquarters showed the contempt that some officers have for the progressive views held by many Oaklanders. The photo is of a flyer posted on a bulletin board, depicting a pilot standing on the wing of a World War II-era plane. The caption read: “You shut the fuck up. We’ll protect America. Keep out of our fucking way, liberal pussies.”
While acts of bigotry and human rights violations are serious issues in and of themselves, critics of OPD also note how the department’s institutionalized problems negatively affect the local economy and starve resources from other much-needed city services. The police department is at the very center of Oakland’s chronic fiscal deficits and long-term debts due to the enormously disproportionate share of the city budget spent on policing. Just operating OPD consumes about 40 percent of the city’s general fund each year. The retirement costs of former cops also have driven Oakland into high levels of debt and forced cuts to city services, a problem that is made much worse because these retirees do not live in the city, and spend their pension incomes elsewhere.
Just 9 percent of Oakland’s current 644 police officers actually live in Oakland, according to data provided by OPD. Adding civilian OPD staff who also live outside of Oakland, the total number of police department employees who do not reside in the city is about 785, more than 70 percent of the department’s total workforce.
The city paid these non-Oakland employees roughly $126 million in salary, overtime, and benefits in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. In other words, Oakland taxpayers are exporting up to 86 percent of OPD’s payroll, a huge sum of money, to surrounding suburbs.
Then there are the pensions payouts to former OPD officers from the Police and Fire Retirement System — the city’s old pension system. Each year the PFRS system, which is publicly funded, distributes roughly $64 million in benefits to just over 1,000 beneficiaries. Only 7 percent of PFRS recipients live in Oakland, meaning that about $60 million of the retirement system’s dollars are leaving the city. Most PFRS recipients reside in the same surrounding suburban towns where current Oakland cops live, but some former cops have retired out of state in Nevada, Oregon, and Arizona, among other destinations. The bottom line is that up to $186 million of Oakland’s tax dollars are lost to other communities each year in the form of OPD salaries and retired police benefits.
But those aren’t the only costs of having what amounts to an outsourced police department. Over the past decade, Oakland taxpayers have paid more than $58 million to settle civil lawsuits filed against police for the mistreatment of city residents — including assaults and fatal shootings. That’s more than the combined payouts of San Jose and San Francisco during the same period.
At the same time, discussions about public safety are often dominated by proposals to boost OPD spending even higher. And some community members worry that if and when OPD is put under federal receivership, the city will be forced to increase the department’s funding even more.
The bottom line, say many frustrated Oaklanders, is that, until OPD’s rank and file members come to identify with and feel accountable to the communities they patrol, little will change. And Oakland residents will continue to pay the price.
Of the 91 percent of Oakland’s sworn police officers who live outside of the city, most reside in other East Bay communities, including San Leandro, Castro Valley, San Ramon, and Concord — places with very different demographics than Oakland. Some live farther away, in places like Santa Rosa, Napa, and Sacramento. Still others commute from distant communities, such as College City (near Williams), Shingle Springs (near Placerville), and San Luis Obispo.
By contrast, OPD’s civilian staff members are much more likely to live within Oakland. About 46 percent of OPD’s administrative staff and other non-patrol officer employees reside in the city, but few of them have any significant interactions with Oakland residents while on the job.
“If by and large these cops don’t live in Oakland, don’t spend money here, and don’t really have personal ties here, I wouldn’t expect them to really care about the people who live here,” said Yvonne Michelle, a community organizer and resident of Oakland, after reviewing a summary of data describing where OPD officers live. “The police officers who might care about people’s lives are still at a disadvantage because they do not know the ebbs and flows of the neighborhoods that they police. They can only see Oakland as cops, not as residents.”
This disconnect with Oakland’s communities, especially its black and immigrant neighborhoods in West and East Oakland, also may affect the patterns and practices of police conduct, said Jeremy Miller, co-director of Education Not Incarceration. “If the police don’t live in the same general community they patrol, serious problems arise,” he argued. “They are unfamiliar with the rhythms of life where they’re working, because it’s not at all like the places where they predominantly dwell.”
Miller believes that this likely causes a mentality among officers who feel as if they are “entering a battlefield where the job is to get in, fight the bad guys, and then get out.”
Activists like Michelle and Miller contend that this dynamic is at the root of OPD’s “patterns and practices” of violating the rights or Oakland residents. It was the court’s finding in the Riders Case more than ten years ago — that OPD did, in fact, exhibit a pattern and practice of violating the rights of Oakland residents — that led to the federal consent decree.
Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, who has become a leader in the Bay Area’s police accountability movement, called OPD’s culture “institutionally racist.” Johnson referred to the defaced photos of Mayor Quan and Judge Henderson as just one example of the department’s hostility to Oakland’s communities of color. “When you’re bringing in officers who live in Walnut Creek to serve the people of Oakland, you have an officer who has been isolated from the very communities they need to understand and protect,” Johnson said. “They look at the whole community in a savage way and act like they’re going into combat by treating every young black or brown person accordingly.”
“This is part of the reason why reforms don’t work,” added Mesha Irizarry, after looking over data describing the cities from which OPD recruits police cadets, where current officers choose to live, and the towns where retirees predominantly reside. Founder of the Idris Stelley Foundation, a Bay Area police watchdog group, Irizarry is a longtime supporter and organizer of families who have lost loved ones to violent encounters with the police. In recent months, she has been organizing and marching in downtown Oakland to call attention to the shooting earlier this year of teenager Alan Blueford. The prevailing community sentiment in East Oakland is that Blueford’s killing is a clear case of institutional problems within OPD, including racial profiling and the frequent use of excessive force.
Pointing to a map of the zip codes where OPD staff members live, Irizarry noted that the home zip code of the officer who shot Alan Blueford is the small city of Los Banos, California, more than 150 miles from Oakland, a place where African Americans make up less than 4 percent of the population. Adam Blueford, Alan’s father, spoke of the difference between the native officers who patrolled Oakland’s Brookfield Village neighborhood thirty years ago and OPD’s current staff. “We had officers from the neighborhood who we knew and respected,” Blueford said. “It was very different than it is now with the militarized policing we’re seeing today.”
Whether it’s a source of problems or not, the geographic distribution of Oakland’s outsider police force is nothing new. Cops have, for several decades now, shunned the city as their home, choosing to live in surrounding suburbs instead. In 1980, James C. Westbrook, a graduate student at Golden Gate University, was granted access by OPD to interview hundreds of officers, probing their attitudes about themselves, their profession, and society at large. Westbrook found that only 18 percent of OPD officers lived in Oakland at the time — double the 9 percent of sworn officers who currently reside in the city. Those who lived outside the city said they chose to avoid Oakland while not on the job because of its “high crime rate.” Cops bought homes elsewhere because of Oakland’s “low quality schools,” wrote Westbrook in his dissertation.
Oakland’s police officers say this is an unfair and incomplete explanation of why so many of them live outside Oakland. Some Oakland cops cite worries about their family’s safety as a critical reason for living elsewhere. One Oakland officer, who was born and raised in the city by a father who served in OPD, said she and her husband (another OPD officer) moved to the Central Valley because of death threats her spouse started to receive after shifting to a high-risk unit. “We loved Oakland, our kids were in school here, we loved the community, but at a certain point we had to take those threats seriously,” said the officer, who requested anonymity because of the nature of her and her spouse’s assignments.
The Oakland Police Officers Association and OPD’s official spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Although actual incidents of police officers being harmed or harassed in or near their homes is rare, Sandra Bass of the Packard Foundation, who closely studied Oakland police in the 1990s, agreed that concerns over personal safety has long been a reason cited by cops as to why they don’t live in the city they serve. “When I was studying the OPD, officers feared being harassed, or having their families being harassed, either in a threatening way, or such that they never could truly be ‘off duty’ because neighbors would engage them about issues,” said Bass, who also has provided testimony to the US Civil Rights Commission on police accountability.
Rhina Ramos, the director of programs at the Ella Baker Center, said she understands why certain officers would choose to live outside Oakland, but balked at the extremely high number of those who do. “I can understand certain visible law officers, those who work high risk units not wanting to be here when off-duty, but more than 90 percent of the total force, regular patrol cops? I think they would actually benefit from living here by forging human connections to the city’s communities and really getting to know the people that they’re sworn to serve and protect. They would understand Oakland from the inside.”
Whatever its underlying reasons and effects on the city, OPD’s constitution as a force of non-Oaklanders is not likely to change anytime soon. Most of the applicants for OPD’s three upcoming police academies hail from outside of Oakland, despite Mayor Quan and Police Chief Howard Jordan’s assertions that they are working to increase local recruitment.
Of the 2,363 applicants who applied for a spot in the next three police academies, only 267, or 11 percent, are Oakland residents. The rest predominantly hail from cities where African Americans account for a much smaller portion of the population. For example, three of the top cities where OPD recruits live are San Jose, San Francisco, and Concord, and blacks only make up only 3, 6, and 6 percent of the population in each of those cities, respectively.
While blacks account for about 28 percent of Oakland’s population, only 20 percent of OPD academy recruits are black. Whites are over-represented among OPD applicants in proportion to the city’s current population. The differences between communities from which OPD recruits officers and the Oakland communities they patrol are equally stark in socioeconomic terms. Average family incomes in Oakland’s flatlands are much lower than even the poorest neighborhoods in affluent cities like Pleasanton and San Ramon. Towns like Fairfield, Danville, and Livermore, where many OPD officers are recruited from and choose to live while on the force, have small immigrant populations, certainly nothing approaching Oakland’s diversity and size.
Wilson Riles Jr., who served on the Oakland City Council from 1978 until 1992, believes the department’s failure to find sufficient recruits from within city limits is due to intransigence from OPD’s veteran core. This internal resistance is, in turn, rooted in historical recruiting policies that purposefully drew officers from far outside Oakland.
In fact, OPD’s fractious relations with the city’s African-American community go back much further than the commonly known tensions with the militant Black Panther Party in the Sixties and Seventies. During the Second World War, Oakland experienced a tremendous influx of African Americans who came in search of work in the munitions and shipbuilding industries supplying the Pacific theater of World War II. “At the same time, the city started recruiting additional police officers in order to deal with this new African-American population coming out of the South, and they specifically only recruited whites from the South to come and work in the Oakland Police Department,” Riles noted.
The result was a police department that treated black Oaklanders with such bias and contempt that a 1950 investigation by the California State Assembly’s Interim Committee on Crime and Corrections condemned OPD for systematically brutalizing and violating the rights of local African Americans. C.L. Dellums, uncle of former Mayor Ron Dellums, famously explained to the committee’s members, “generally, Negroes regard the police as their natural enemies.”
Chris Rhomberg, a Yale University sociologist who studies mid-20th-century Oakland politics, characterized OPD’s operations as “a discriminatory pattern of police violence, which effectively constituted a form of official social control in the ghetto.” In 1966, the US Commission on Civil Rights convened yet another hearing in Oakland where black and Latino community members vented against what they called systemic “police intimidation and excessive force.”
Despite the findings of various official investigations, city leaders did little to address the department’s institutionalized racism and lack of consequences for officer mistreatment of black and immigrant Oaklanders until 2000. That year, rookie Officer Keith Batt blew the whistle on four colleagues, dubbed “The Riders,” who allegedly robbed, beat, and framed West Oakland residents. Two separate criminal prosecutions of three of The Riders failed to produce convictions in Alameda County, while the fourth cop, Officer Frank Vasquez, fled to Mexico and is still wanted by the FBI as a fugitive from justice. However, Oakland taxpayers paid out $10.5 million in settlements to The Riders’ victims and agreed to a program of court-ordered reforms that ostensibly would prevent a recurrence of such misconduct.
The nine-year-old federal consent decree stemming from The Riders scandal is the strongest push for reform ever placed upon the Oakland Police Department. The consent decree requires sweeping changes to investigations, training, disciplinary proceedings, as well as a system for tracking the behavior of problem officers.
However, in its current form, the consent decree and the court monitor operating under Judge Henderson lack any input or control over OPD’s hiring and firing policies. The consent decree has led to no meaningful changes of how Oakland recruits officers, and does not address the underlying issue that so many cops live outside the city.
The federal court’s role could take a drastic turn should Henderson decide later this year to place OPD in federal receivership, a step never before taken in American history. If that were to happen, OPD would be controlled by a special master appointed by Henderson who would presumably have final say over employment and disciplinary matters, and could make reform demands that address deeper structural problems.
A danger, however, is that the federal receiver could, as a last-ditch effort to increase OPD’s ranks and capabilities, force Oakland to spend even more on its police services — a problematic solution given that Oakland already spends far more on its police than cities of comparable size.
Last year, Oakland spent $155 million on its police department, amounting to about 40 percent of the city’s total general fund budget. By comparison, San Jose spent only 26 percent of its general fund on police services. Cities of more comparable size to Oakland such as Long Beach, Sacramento, and Fresno also spent less on their cops. Long Beach and Sacramento expended 7 and 17 percent of their general funds on policing, respectively, while Fresno used up about 29 percent of its general fund budget on cops. The smaller cities of the East Bay where many OPD officers live also spend much less of their total budgets on cops. San Leandro allocated 24 percent for its cops, while Tracy spent 18 percent of its total funds.
Oakland’s sworn police personnel also are among the city’s highest-paid employees: officer salary, health benefits, and pension payments totaled $119 million in fiscal year 2010-11, the most recent year for which data was available. That worked out to about $183,000 per cop.
There also are twelve OPD sworn officers who earned more than $300,000 last year in total employee compensation (including base salary, overtime and other payments, employer pension contributions, and health care benefits). None of these officers are in OPD’s command staff: All but four of them are sergeants, seven of whom work as investigators in the department’s Major Crimes Unit. Only two of OPD’s top earners — Lieutenant Trevelyon Jones ($359,145) and Sergeant Sean Fleming ($322,591) live in Oakland.
The rest of OPD’s top earners are, in several ways, illustrative of the problems afflicting the department. For example, Sergeant Randell Wingate (OPD’s highest paid officer in fiscal year 2010-11 with a total compensation of $423,246) is a Green Beret veteran who joined OPD in 1993 at age nineteen. Wingate has been repeatedly decorated over the course of his law enforcement and military career. Despite his service record, OPD tried to fire him in 2008 for his role in two incidents: an alleged assault and his attempt to recover a cell phone lost by a fellow officer during a West Oakland narcotics arrest in 2007. Wingate, who lives in Brentwood, was found to have violated OPD policy during the search for the officer’s lost cell phone, and then-Chief Wayne Tucker attempted to have him terminated in April 2008, but the sergeant prevailed in front of an arbitrator in March 2010 and was reinstated. Oakland also paid out $350,000 in 2008 to settle a lawsuit against Wingate alleging that he assaulted and injured a man during a September 2005 tailgating party near the Oakland Coliseum.
Many OPD officers are like Wingate — highly paid individuals who don’t live in the city and have little to no connection with the everyday life of Oaklanders.
And since most of Oakland’s police budget is expended is spent on payroll — about $144 million, counting salaries, overtime, health benefits, and pension costs — this means that the city’s unusually large commitment to funding police services is also an unusually large drain on tax dollars that are unlikely to have any positive impact on the local economy. That’s because cops don’t buy homes in Oakland, and presumably do much of their shopping outside of the city near to where they live.
Our estimate that $126 million in employee compensation and another $60 million in PFRS benefits, for a total of $186 million, left Oakland in the 2010-2011 fiscal year derives from OPD’s own data, along with records obtained from the city’s retirement office. This sum does not count OPD procurement, settlements related to officer misconduct, or other means by which city tax dollars are leaving Oakland through its police department.
“The community desperately needs this money here to support the local economy,” said Ella Baker Center’s Ramos. She called this export of city funds “alarming,” adding that “Oakland is obviously being depleted of scarce resources.”
Section 50083 of the California Government Code strictly forbids localities like Oakland from imposing blanket residency requirements on their employees: “No local agency or district shall require that its employees be residents of such local agency or district,” reads the law. The code does allow cities to require that certain types of employees, such as public safety officers, including police and fire, “reside within a reasonable and specific distance of their place of employment or other designated location,” but just what constitutes a “reasonable” distance does not appear to have been specified by Oakland’s officials.
Public policy needs to respond creatively in order to address the drain of money, and the alienation between OPD’s officers and the community, Ramos said. “It is necessary to explore solutions to this problem,” she said. “Nothing new is being tried out right now. We don’t know if trying to get cops to live in Oakland would work, but it’s worth trying out something.”